Protesters burn buildings in 2 Syrian towns

DAMASCUS, Syria — Protesters set fire to offices of the ruling party in southern and western Syria on Saturday, burning tires and attacking cars and shops in a religiously mixed city on the Mediterranean coast, according to accounts by government officials, activists and witnesses.

Offi

cials said at least two people were killed.

Presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban told reporters that demonstrators attacked a police station and offices of the Baath party in the town of Tafas, six miles (10 kilometers) north of the city of Daraa, epicenter of more than a week of anti-government protests.

In the coastal city of Latakia, dozens of people protested before attacking the Baath offices, said Ammar Qurabi, an exile in Egypt who heads Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights.

A Syrian activist in touch with protesters in Latakia said hundreds had been demonstrating there since Friday evening, burning tires and shouting “Freedom!” A few protesters were attacking cars and shops, the activist said.

More than a week of protests centered in Daraa exploded into nationwide unrest Friday when tens of thousands of protesters marched in cities, town and villages around the country, posing the greatest threat in decades to the Baath party’s iron-fisted rule. Troops and soldiers opened fire in at least six places, killing some 15 protesters, according to witnesses, activists and footage posted on social networking sites.

A resident of Latakia who spoke to The Associated Press from home reported hearing gunfire Saturday evening, but could not say where it was coming from. Shaaban said that an “armed group” had occupied the roofs of some buildings in Latakia, and claimed the group was shooting randomly at citizens.

A Syrian official told The Associated Press that two passersby were killed and two others wounded in Latakia by sniper fire from rooftops. He denied that the army had opened fire on protesters.

A hospital official in Latakia also said there were two dead and two wounded. He declined to give any other details.

Footage on a Facebook site run by Syrian activists showed what it said were the dead and wounded in Latakia. Young men carried one man by his limbs through a street, then another. They laid the second man limp in the street.

“It’s the military police!” one shouted.

Footage from an opposition Syrian news agency uploaded onto YouTube claimed to show another man killed in Latakia.

Men screamed, “Oh God! Oh God!” as they laid the body of the young man on the floor, his face smeared with blood and a gaping hole close to his jawline.

The authenticity of the footage could not be independently confirmed.

Qurabi said four people had been killed when armed forces fired on protesters Friday in Latakia, which is almost evenly divided between the country’s majority Sunni Muslims and Alawites, members of a branch of Shiite Islam who hold most positions of power, including the presidency.

Activists called online for a popular peaceful uprising Saturday in all Syrian provinces, urging people to take part in funerals “and not return home.”

By early Saturday afternoon, President Bashar Assad had pulled back police and soldiers from Daraa and released hundreds of political prisoners in an attempt to appease demonstrators furious about the violent government crackdown on dissent.

A resident told The Associated Press by telephone that security forces had withdrawn to the outskirts of Daraa, where protests demanding the release of youths arrested for spraying anti-government graffiti have spiraled into daily confrontations with security forces, who have repeatedly opened fire.

The Daraa resident said more than 1,000 people were holding a silent sit-in the al-Omari mosque, the epicenter of the protests. Protesters used the mosque as a refuge and ad hoc medical center until they were driven out in a government assault on Wednesday. They retook the mosque during clashes with government forces on Friday, witnesses said.

The clashes erupted after protesters attacked a statue of late President Hafez Assad in Daraa’s main square, witnesses said. The Daraa resident said the statue had been knocked down, a giant picture of President Bashar Assad, the late leader’s son, had been torn apart.

A video posted on the main Facebook page used by Syrian pro-democracy activists showed a crowd of young men in Deraa climbing onto the base and trying to shake its from its perch, then rushing toward a nearby building, some throwing what appear to be stones. Suddenly, automatic weapons fire breaks out and the video ends.

A resident told The Associated Press that he saw two bodies and many wounded people brought to Daraa’s main hospital after the shooting.

A human rights activist said authorities had released 260 political prisoners. Abdul-Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian Human Rights League, said most of those released on Saturday were Islamists and 14 Kurdish detainees were also let free. Most had been imprisoned at Saidnaya, a prison in a Damascus suburb that houses political detainees. He said no further details were immediately available and there was no official confirmation.

Rihawi called the move a “positive step” and urged authorities to release all political detainees.

An activist in Damascus said a funeral had been held in the village of Sanamein for seven people shot when demonstrators tried to march a short distance to Daraa to support the protesters there.

The activist said people in Sanamein said mourners shouted slogans in support of the Daraa uprising but there was no violence.

Syrian state media portrayed Friday’s violence as a serious of clashes between state security forces and armed gangs.

It said two people were killed in confrontations in Latakia Friday, and some 100 others hurt, including 80 police. It did not elaborate.

Shaaban alleged that a group of Palestinians had come into Latakia from a refugee camp with weapons and fire, killing a policeman and two protesters.

“These are not peaceful protests demanding accelerated reforms … what is happening in Syria now is an attempt to sow civil strife,” she told reporters in Damascus.

The state-run news agency said an armed group attacked an officers’ club in the central city of Homs on Friday, killing one person and wounding others.

Videos posted on social networking sites Friday night showed protesters in Homs tearing down a large poster of Hafez Assad over the entrance to the Officers Club. The authenticity of the footage could not be independently verified.

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